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PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The Walmart in Presque Isle has a confirmed COVID-19 outbreak with three employees testing positive for the virus, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said Tuesday.
They are the first COVID-19 cases confirmed in Presque Isle, though not in the Presque Isle area. An employee at A.R. Gould’s Continuing Care facility in Mars Hill tested positive for the virus last week.
Shah said that the Maine CDC was consulting Walmart management as they handle the outbreak, including assisting with testing, educating anyone else who may have been exposed locally and keeping that Walmart safe for customers and employees.
The Maine CDC had begun investigating the outbreak only three or four hours before the briefing began at 2 p.m., Shah said.
He said the Maine CDC had many unanswered questions that will determine its future actions, such as the number of employees that will need to be tested. Shah said he would have more information about the investigation in his briefing on Thursday.
“We are really in the early stages of figuring out what the layout of the store is, where these three employees may have been working, who needs to be tested and that sort of thing,” Shah said.
Shah said an important point for investigators will be whether the three employees contracted the virus at work or while congregating outside their jobs.
Asked about the safety of going to the Walmart in Presque Isle, Shah said the three employees were not currently working there. He said shoppers should be vigilant, wearing facemasks and maintaining social distancing as they would do in any public place, and that the CDC’s investigation would examine what measures can be put in place to make sure no employees or customers are infected going forward.
Walmart is the busiest store in Aroostook County. It began requiring that customers wear masks a few weeks ago, a practice adopted by employees of the store since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There had been rumors in Presque Isle that Walmart employees had tested positive days before confirmation from the CDC, including several comments on Concerned Citizens of Presque Isle, a popular community Facebook group for residents.
On Monday, Walmart spokesperson Rebecca Thomason said the company would leave it to “local health departments” to provide information on whether any workers at the store had tested positive for COVID-19.
The case at Walmart is the second known COVID-19 outbreak in Aroostook County. Seven people were reported infected from an outbreak in Houlton late last month, including four different Houlton Ambulance Service crew members who had made contact with a patient who had the virus. There have also been cases in the Fort Kent area, including The County’s only COVID-related death in May.
In a state that has had among the lowest rates of COVID-19 in the country, Aroostook County had been especially shielded. With 30 cases as of July 20, The County has the fourth lowest rate of Maine’s 16 counties.
Especially as regulations on restaurants and gatherings relaxed in recent months, many in the Presque Isle-area eschewed masks, even in large gatherings of 50 people like town and school budget meetings.
The outbreak at Walmart, as well as the positive COVID-19 case in Mars Hill last week, are a sizable shift for a population that had previously known only COVID-19 scares, such as in Fort Fairfield, where seven members of Fort Fairfield’s police and fire department made indirect contact with an individual who had the virus. Everyone involved tested negative.